Where to begin with British smut

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: the disreputable history of the British sex comedy

Michael Brooke

Her Private Hell (1967)

Her Private Hell (1967)

Why this might not seem so easy

What do we mean by ‘British smut’? After all, countless British films dating back to 1896’s A Victorian Lady in Her Boudoir amply qualify, and sexually charged comedy has been a core part of British culture for centuries earlier.

But it was the 1960s and 70s when smut (“obscene or lascivious talk, writing or pictures”) in the form of softcore sex films increasingly dominated British cinemas – and dominated to such an extent that, throughout the financially tumultuous 1970s, the genre was one of the only surefire commercial prospects besides sitcom spin-offs. What’s more, they could be made for considerably less money.

Dismissed for years as a worthless waste of good celluloid, British sex films have recently undergone a substantial critical reappraisal, thanks to the sterling efforts of genre historians like David McGillivray and Simon Sheridan (whose magnum opuses Doing Rude Things and Keeping the British End Up! offer enthralling social histories aside from their merits as film archaeology), while the near-simultaneous arrival of Channel 5 and the DVD revolution in the late 1990s made many of them accessible again for the first time in decades.

Many turned out to be as terrible as their reputation, of course – and their makers often cheerfully admitted as much. But there were several genuine gems, while other films dismissed at the time have developed considerable historical and cultural interest since.

The best place to start – Eskimo Nell

You’d be hard pushed to find other genre entries that tick as many boxes as this 1974 release, which has its origins in a legendarily filthy poem that’s literate and witty enough to have been attributed to Noël Coward (who’s at least known to have recited it).

Poster for Eskimo Nell (1974)

Poster for Eskimo Nell (1974)

Its credits are festooned with important genre names, including prolific producer Stanley Long, screenwriter-star Michael Armstrong (Mark of the Devil) and a familiar mix of underclad starlets (including an early appearance by Mary Millington) and respected British veterans (Roy Kinnear, Christopher Timothy). Director Martin Campbell, meanwhile, would later make Edge of Darkness for the BBC and two outstanding Bond films (GoldenEye, Casino Royale). 

Eskimo Nell is a terrific example of a film having its cake and eating it, amply delivering on the promised titillation while also gleefully spoofing the mid-70s British sex film industry. Armstrong plays a high-minded film school graduate who can only find work in softcore, and finds himself making four different versions of the same film to please backers with differing requirements, ranging from whole-minded family entertainment to full-on hardcore porn (the latter only hinted at, of course).

It’s also crammed with in-jokes, its industry vulgarians being based none too subtly on real people.

What to watch next

They may have mostly sported U and A rather than X certificates, but no student of British smut can possibly ignore the Carry On cycle, which over the course of 30 films (1958-78, with a last hurrah in 1992) served up every innuendo imaginable to audiences whose collective laugh was even dirtier than that of regular star Sid James.

Carry On Cleo (1964) and Carry On… Up the Khyber (1968) regularly top best-of polls (with 1978’s Carry On Emmannuelle one to avoid), although the show-stopper involving Barbara Windsor and a flyaway bikini top in Carry On Camping (1970) is the most iconic moment.

Carry On Camping (1969)

Carry On Camping (1969)

Other smutty cycles include the raunchier Confessions films (1974-77), in which Robin Askwith’s Timothy Lea constantly finds himself getting into bare-bottomed scrapes in cahoots with Tony Blair’s real-life father-in-law after taking on assorted jobs highlighted by the films’ titles: Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974), …of a Pop Performer (1975), …of a Driving Instructor (1976), and …from a Holiday Camp (1977).

Not to be outdone, Stanley Long launched the three-film Adventures cycle, whose debut Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1976) famously outgrossed a similarly-titled Martin Scorsese film, at least as far as its initial British cinema release was concerned.

Memorable one-offs include Derek Ford’s The Wife Swappers (1969), which spun inspiration from News of the World shock-horror exposés into a multi-stranded tale of gleefully straying couples, with an alleged “eminent London psychiatrist” popping up at regular intervals to add a note of entirely spurious seriousness to the proceedings.

There’s also legendary sexploitation/arthouse distributor Antony Balch’s Secrets of Sex (1970), all too reasonably retitled Bizarre in the US, a spellbindingly bonkers mélange of vignettes that are by turns sexy, horrific or flat-out demented, narrated by an ancient mummy (!) with the sonorous voice of Valentine Dyall.

Secrets of Sex (1970)

Secrets of Sex (1970)

Crossroads co-creator Hazel Adair penned a well above average script for the Upstairs, Downstairs parody Keep It Up Downstairs (1976), while Willy Roe’s The Playbirds (1978), which finally turned Mary Millington into a star, is less interesting for its stalker-thriller plot than it is for its footage of late 1970s Soho, which would become thoroughly scrubbed clean over the next decade.

And there are also the historically important likes of Nudist Paradise (1958) and Her Private Hell (1967), respectively the first nudist-camp ‘documentary’ (which inaugurated an entire sub-genre of censor-baiting releases that also established the visual cliché of nude volleyball), and what is widely regarded as the first bona fide British sex film.

Both were a lot more eye-opening then than now, of course, although Her Private Hell’s tale of exploitation and blackmail has much else going for it: director Norman J. Warren would go on to make some of the more memorable 1970s British horror films.

As for animated smut, you could hardly do better than Bob ‘Roobarb’ Godfrey’s hilarious nine-minute, Oscar-nominated Kama Sutra Rides Again (1971).

Where not to start

A bafflingly huge hit thanks to producer David Sullivan’s canny if thoroughly mendacious marketing, Harrison Marks’ Come Play with Me (1977) fuses ineptly shot caper comedy with irrelevant sex scenes that Sullivan largely added later.

Actor Derren Nesbitt ill-advisedly turned director-producer-screenwriter for The Amorous Milkman (1974), whose many barrel-scraping gags include wince-inducing attempts at making sexual assault funny.

Emily (1977) is more famous for starring Prince Andrew’s future girlfriend Koo Stark than any intrinsic merit of its own, while The Great British Striptease (1980) has a fair claim to being British cinema’s absolute nadir, combining poorly shot striptease with Bernard Manning’s racist jokes.

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